House committee passes bipartisan university research infrastructure bill

January 21, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear News

A bipartisan bill to ensure that U.S. universities are equipped to play a key role in supporting the deployment of advanced nuclear technology and applications has been passed by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

The National Nuclear University Research Infrastructure Reinvestment Act of 2021 (H.R. 4819) would boost investment in new and existing university nuclear science and engineering infrastructure, establish regional consortia to promote collaboration with industry and national laboratories, and support the development of advanced reactor technology and the workforce required for commercial advanced reactor deployment.

The basics: The bill was introduced in July 2021 by Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R., Ohio), together with Reps. Sean Casten (D., Ill.), Peter Meijer (R., Mich.), and Bill Foster (D., Ill). On January 19, during a full committee markup session, the bill was passed out of the committee. At this writing, the bill has garnered the support of 15 cosponsors in the House.

What’s in the bill? The bill provides funding to upgrade existing infrastructure and establish regional or subregional consortia, and it would require the Department of Energy to create a new program to deploy “no more than four new research reactors” at U.S. universities. That program would focus on demonstrating advanced reactor and microreactor concepts, medical isotope production reactors, and other critical research infrastructure. Those facilities would be constructed as a partnership between the host university and collaborating universities, including historically black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, and community colleges.

As introduced, the bill would authorize funding of $55 million per year for five years, beginning in fiscal year 2022, for two efforts intended to enhance existing support for university nuclear programs: upgrading existing infrastructure in support of advanced nuclear technologies and applications, and creating regional or subregional university-led consortia to broaden access to university research reactors and provide project management and technical, engineering, manufacturing, and nuclear material support.

The DOE would be tasked with creating the Advanced Nuclear Research Infrastructure Enhancement Subprogram to (1) demonstrate various advanced nuclear reactor and nuclear microreactor concepts, (2) establish medical isotope production reactors or other specialized applications, and (3) advance other research infrastructure. The subprogram would receive substantial funding in fiscal years 2022–2029, beginning with $10 million in 2022 and increasing to $140 million by 2027.

What’s new? Three amendments to H.R. 4819 were passed by voice vote during the full committee markup.

Foster and Gonzalez offered an amendment that prohibits the use of highly enriched uranium as a fuel source for any new research reactors established under the program.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D., Colo.) offered an amendment to ensure that federal agencies outside of the DOE are included in the program’s collaborations, partnerships, and knowledge sharing.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) offered an amendment to include funding for scholarships, fellowships, and projects in “nontechnical nuclear research,” defined as “research with specializations such as social sciences or law that can support an increase in community engagement, participation, and confidence in nuclear energy systems, including the navigation of the licensing required for advanced reactor deployment.”

What’s next? While prospects for H.R. 4819 have improved with its passage out of committee, it still has a long way to go before becoming law. When the bill reaches the Senate, it could be the subject of additional amendments and could be tied to a larger energy or omnibus act.

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